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More than $2 billion needed to fix Hudson River watershed sewers

sewer work in Newburgh-courtesy of City of Newburgh-1100

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[Updated October 27, 2022 with data from the final Intended Use Plan, updating information that had been available in the draft plan. With projects removed from the final list, the total documented need is nearly $1 billion lower for the Hudson River Watershed than estimated in the draft list.]

Hudson River Watershed communities need at least $2.2 billion to repair and upgrade wastewater infrastructure, according to a Riverkeeper analysis of New York State’s 2023 list of projects eligible for federal funding. Achieving the “swimmable” goal of the Clean Water Act, 50 years after its passage, hinges on ongoing and stepped-up investments in our wastewater infrastructure.

These costs include upgrades and repairs at wastewater treatment plants–the most visible components of our wastewater infrastructure–but also for projects necessary to maintain the vast network of underground pipes and pump stations that collect and transport sewage. All of this infrastructure is essential for preventing water pollution, but much of it is well past its intended lifespan. The average Hudson Valley sewer line is over half a century old, according to data compiled by the Hudson River Estuary Program.

Sewer infrastructure repairs in Newburgh
City of Newburgh is among the communities making investments to reduce sewage overflows and improve Hudson River water quality. Photo courtesy of City of Newburgh.

The poor condition of our local infrastructure is not unique to New York, though New York has the greatest need of any state for wastewater infrastructure investments. In its 2022 report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave American wastewater infrastructure a D+, indicating that it is highly vulnerable to failure. Those failures mean raw or partially treated sewage leaking into our streams and rivers, and they are common during wet weather. For instance, in the last week (September 19-26, 2022), these communities issued one or more alerts due to sewage overflows: Fort Edward, Glens Falls and Hudson Falls in the Upper Hudson River; Amsterdam, Little Falls and Utica in the Mohawk River; Albany, Kingston, Green Island, Hudson, Newburgh, New York City, Poughkeepsie, Rensselaer, Troy and Watervliet in the Hudson River Estuary.

Each of these communities, along with Village of Catskill, City of Cohoes and Westchester County, have combined sewers that discharge raw sewage mixed with stormwater when it rains, because their sewers were designed to carry both street runoff and sewage, leading to overflows when pipe capacity is exceeded by an influx of rain water. Each of these communities is, 50 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, in the process of reducing overflows under “Long Term Control Plans” requiring separation of sewers, increases in treatment capacity, installation of green infrastructure or other improvements.

In a time of rapid climate change, when extreme storms are more common, overflows will come more frequently if infrastructure is not right-sized for current and future storm size. As Riverkeeper has documented repeatedly, data show that rain causes degradation of water quality in many communities, and after extreme storms, the impacts are more severe.

Fortunately, the ASCE highlighted some positive national trends that are evident in New York. First, asset management planning is increasingly prevalent, in part due to Riverkeeper’s advocacy to establish a program to support community-level planning for replacing and upgrading systems before they fail. These plans help municipalities manage infrastructure proactively, rather than jumping from crisis to crisis, which reduces costs and promotes sustainability.

Another trend is resilience-based planning. About one in four wastewater treatment plants are at risk from flooding even at current sea level, according to a Wastewater and Stormwater analysis completed as part of the Comprehensive Hudson River Restoration Plan. For wastewater infrastructure, improving resilience in the face of climate extremes means ensuring that pipes, pump stations and treatment plants can handle increased flows from large storms, and infrastructure is protected from sea-level rise and flooding.

Taken to another level, resilience should also include moving away from a “take-and-waste” mindset toward one of resource recovery and closed loop systems. Wastewater treatment plants can reduce costs and energy consumption by incentivizing conservation; harvesting heat, methane and nutrients from their treatment processes; and reusing water. These practices can be good for the climate, and also for watersheds, though the presence of PFAS and other trace chemicals in sewage sludge complicates some beneficial uses.

The Hudson River Watershed contains about one-third of the state’s wastewater treatment facilities, yet it accounts for nearly 40% of the documented needs. This year, New York will be able to spend an extra $250 million on wastewater infrastructure, thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Riverkeeper is also urging voters to vote yes for the Clean Water, Clean Air, Green Jobs Bond Act, on the ballot this November, to ensure New York’s stepped-up investments in water infrastructure continue.

*Watershed total is different than the sum of regional subtotals due to rounding estimates. Note that these are conservative estimates, since not all communities have documented all needs, or included all documented needs in funding applications that are used to generate this list.

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